Saturday, July 22, 2006

Education in Indiana not Quite Free

Although summer is still in full swing, the time is rapidly approaching when the kids will be back in school again. And that means making trips to the malls and discount stores to get all those back-to-school supplies and clothes. It’s inevitable.

What is also inevitable, unfortunately, is that our so-called free education system will be charging parents exorbitant fees for textbook rental. A family with three school-aged children in various grades might expect to pay more than $500 or $600 for textbook rental fees. It doesn’t sound free to me.

Approximately 30 percent of school families will have the rental fees waived. That’s because these families qualify for free or reduced price lunches because their total family incomes are below federal guidelines. But the remaining 70 percent of families with kids in school must fork over the full amount of the rental.

In a 2001 policy statement the Indiana Department of Education laid forth reasons why Indiana should remain one of only 10 states that force their school children to pay fees for mandatory textbooks. In other words, their conclusion was that the vast majority of states must be doing it the wrong way.

At the time the policy statement was issued, the Indiana General Assembly was considering a measure to pay for all mandatory textbook fees with tax dollars. But the DOE nixed that idea.

The biggest reason cited for not supporting tax-funded textbooks was the cost. In 2000 Indiana’s expenditure for school textbooks to low-income families exceeded $16 million. The DOE estimate was that if textbooks were supplied free to all one million Hoosier students the cost would skyrocket to $74 million, and would continue to escalate every year due to inflation.

But in the big scheme of state expenditures, the difference between 16 and 74 million is not that crucial. It might be if the new expense were for something inconsequential, but the education of Indiana’s school children is of the utmost importance and should never be the target of penny-pinching.

A DOE survey that led up to the policy statement showed that, in many states that have no textbook rental, books were sometimes 10 years old and in poor shape. The study also found that not every student had access to some textbooks.

Although that might be true, it doesn’t have to be. It’s a matter of proper implementation of policy. In states that allow their textbooks to become antiquated or that purchase less-than-adequate supplies of books, the effort should focus on improving their funding formulas. It’s a problem that doesn’t have to happen in Indiana.

Another concern by the DOE is that in states where students receive their textbooks for free, they are less likely to take care of them. As a teacher myself, I know that students in Indiana don’t always take care of their textbooks either. And regardless of whether the books are paid for by parents or by taxpayers in general, students who lose or abuse their textbooks are still charged for the damage. It’s a non-issue.

The 2000 survey showed that four states paid for textbooks from state funds. The remaining states without rental fees paid for books with a combination of state and local funding. And even in some of the 10 states that have rental fees for textbooks, the state chips in a little so the parent doesn’t have to foot the entire bill.

But in Indiana, the onus is entirely on the parents. And that is bad policy.

Taxpayers who do not have children may complain that they should not have to help to pay for books for other people’s children. But they are paying for the tuition. The state constitution mandates a free education for all children because the framers recognized that educating our children is important for all of society.

A well-educated public is a public that enjoys a higher standard of living, less crime, and longer life expectancies. If the state mandates that all children be educated at state expense, it only makes sense that it should also pay for textbooks that are mandatory to achieving that education.

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